Beauty is Pain: Reflections on a Former Lover’s Suicide

Not so long ago I learned though a former lover, Krystal Layton, committed suicide. While fifteen years has passed since we were an item and in that time we’d drifted far apart, I still found myself profoundly affected by the news. Given the aims of #metoo and it’s importance for helping to initiate conversations that lead to policy solutions which stop the culture of rape in America, I decided to write a memoriam that would add to the conversation. Lest it seem I’m taking liberties with someone else story, I’ll point out I’m only speaking with the same openness that Krystal modeled in the descriptions of her struggles with mental and physical health and substance usage for years on her blog (NSFW) and on her social media accounts. What follows is thus a long format rendition of her #metoo story, from my perspective, that I hope will not only give evidence for the need for more action to be taken to prevent rape and give appropriate support to those that have been assaulted.

Shade Going Through the Field of Time

*

The first time I heard Krystal say the phase Beauty is pain to explain something to me was when we were getting ready to go out to a goth club.

We were together in her bedroom at her parent’s house. The door was open. I was 18, she 16. I helped her tie up a black, lacy imitation-whalebone corset. She said that in the context of explaining how my concern over drawing the strings tight that she have difficulty breathing was unnecessary. “Beauty is pain,” she half gasped half said due to the pressure, “and I want my bust to look it’s best for you tonight. Tighten it more. So I can barely breathe, that’s fine. My boobs will look banging.”

We’d then only been dating a few weeks, so at the time I thought that Beauty is Pain was merely a witty comment of hers. Krystal was quick, perceptive and had a way with words. But during our brief relationship I came to realize that there was something more to this phrase. She’d repeat it in a number of different contexts, like it was a mantra, like it was a logic ever present in making itself felt in human existence. That night, however, I didn’t pick up the fullness of what all she meant by it.

I was reminded of this all a few days after I’d learned of the news of her suicide. I tried logging into an old email account I hadn’t used in ages and, sure enough, was granted access. I re-read the pages and pages of emails – something that now seems strange to say in this texting age – and a flood of memories came back from when we were teenagers. Most of our epistles concerns the  stereotypical topics you’d expect of adolescents, but there was another current beyond the banal and the flowery phrases of adoration exchanged in the first stages of infatuation.

Silk, from personal notebook #3 2001

In those sections where we outlined the way we understood Spirit; the shapes of our fears and how to deal with them; the outlines of the larger things we longed for; all these showed the divide between our world-views. Krystal reflections about life seemed raw and dark. Bitter. For me, while always open to admit that that murk that exists, I always tried to aim for light. I’m not saying I knew then she would take her own life, merely that there was a difficult to negotiate divide and her penchant for darkness extended beyond fashion style.

Because of her appearance – my freshman-year college roommates told me with more than a hint of envy in their voice how she looked like a goth Victoria’s Secret model. That night that I tied her up and we went out? She wasn’t even carded by the same bouncer that closely scrutinized the one legal ID, mine.

We danced together and socialized. I wanted her to get to know my friends so didn’t dominate her presence. Whenever she wasn’t directly next to me in our small group, however, male strangers would try to talk to her. She was respectful, but when conversation turned to flirtation she would quickly quit them and come over to stand close to me to show who she was with. Feeling juvenile pride at their rejection and her selection of me, I fawned over her. One person in particular – a long blond haired older man (which for me at the time meant early 20s)  – caused her to draw me in especially close. Uncomfortably so. The pressure around my ribs didn’t make me worried they break, but the crush of bone against bone was no pleasant sensation.

At first I thought this might be an ex that I was unaware of. A little tipsy, I mentally prepared for a fight, but he just smiled and continued to walk on. I looked down at her face and saw an expression that I did not then and do not now know fully what it was, other than that it haunted me. I whispered in her ear “Who was that?” and she responded “No one, I’ll explain later.” When we got home, she shared her story with me.

Portrait 2012

Several weeks before her and I got started dating, she’d been raped by that man. At a party that he’d drove her too, he’d drugged her drink, cornered her and then forced himself upon her. The way she described it, she was in a murky haze due to whatever he’d dosed her with. She could see what was happening, but couldn’t her body move in the way her brain wanted to and thus couldn’t fend him off. This was why she was so affected – she’d just seen that man that had literally stolen her virginity.

I’d later learn that this same person had tried the same thing with two of my female friends. In my novel Unraveling the very graphic, violent scene towards such a person with similar physical features is a variant of the recurring fantasy that I had towards this person at this time.

Already prone to depression before, she explained, the traumatic experience had significant effects. She had recurring nightmares, felt anxious when around other people, took too cutting and became averse to most of her male friends. Beauty is pain, she explained, as it causes such strong desires in others that many people are willing to do unethical or immoral things to obtain or experience the object of their desires. She didn’t wholly despise her attractive visage, but felt it was like something that she didn’t entirely want either. A flood of what she was struggling with eternally came out and she ended it all with – and you’re the first person that I shared this all with. I felt pride that she trusted me so much, and also at a loss of how to take the fact that she just shared she was in a near constant state of fear.

Over the course of our relationship the bad dreams would lose their frequency and intensity. She stopped cutting as often, but communicated to me that she’d only stopped as I’d asked her to.  Beauty is pain and sometimes in order to keep it alive in your mind you must make sacrifices. She had a point, though I didn’t like that formulation in this instance. The lessening or disappearance of each particular symptom didn’t mean that she’d overcome the effects the event had had on her. New ones started popped up or came back. Like the panic attacks. Hearing her describe the horror she felt about going out both me my heart go out and my head go huh?! I’d never been in such a situation before and started to resent our relationship increasingly being occupied with issues related to her handling the rape trauma. Fifteen years down the road I feel ashamed at how I behaved in this and other ways, and could only explain it as a product of youth. I know how much she wanted to be rid of the cloud over her head and being optimistic, stayed. She was, after all trying to change herself so that she was less reactive .

“I’d Love To Break Your Heart”

She illicitly obtained anti-anxiety meds like Xanax. She was pleased with the way they made her feel vacant, and to me that was exactly why she shouldn’t take it. Beauty is pain, she said with a face that was both vacant and aggressive, you get what you wanted and then after a while you don’t want it anymore. I was 19. Like I said, I didn’t know how to appropriately react to all this. Especially as the two things that seemed to me that could “fix” all this – either me acting as an agent of justice myself or informing the blue-linnen’d authorities as to what happened – was off the table. She said the same thing that the women that have shared their rape accounts with me have said – the humiliating work that’ll go into making justice happen repels them from action. The drugs, though they shut up some the darker angels of her nature, didn’t provide genuine relief from the underlying issues.

“Discarded Broken Dreams”

Krystal later tried therapy to help with the myriad issues she struggled with. During one of our intermittent talks she expressed aversion to talk therapy. In her blog you can read of her talking about her struggles with depression and antipathy towards the psychiatrists that labeled her bipolar. The dynamic she protested then matched the dynamic that has so previously scarred her: a male older someone handing out drugs that impact the mind to deaden the senses. Whether or not this affected treatment, it seems to me that repetition compulsion in part explains the intermittent changes in medication and categorical disdain for the people she had to talk to in order for her to be provided with meds. After I completed my training at FICAM in 2013, she sent me an email expressing interest in doing bioenergetic therapy with me. I was happy at the thought of it as I was confident I could help her make some major inroads in releasing the energies she’d internalized, later proven true, but as she lived across the country this never happened.

My not knowing how to properly address the impact of the trauma was a major reason I ended our romance. At the time I hated myself for such a rationale. Now, however, I accept it as my having acted the best way I knew how.

Self-Portrait 2008

I know she knew this too at the time because things between us afterwards were amicable. We socialized amongst mutual friends on a not-so irregular basis and wrote each other intermittently for years thereafter. After I got engaged, she even wrote me a nice note saying she felt happy for me as she’d not ever seen me appear so consistently joyful in pictures.

“Faithful Only She”

Lest it seem like I’m turning a whole life into the effect of a single traumatic experience let me be clear: These memories aren’t the only things that I remember about Krystal. In fact it is far from the thing that defines her in my and other’s mind. Krystal was kind and smart and creative and an amazingly talented photographer with hustle. Hearing her talk with the passion that she had about the arts that she practiced always impressed and inspired me. Her self-made zine was an impressively put together outlet she curated from the creatives that were drawn to her. Her dark humor made some laugh and others squirm. She was an all around awesome girl and young woman. I’m detailing the long-lasting effects of the trauma as while I can’t honestly draw a straight line from that trauma to her choosing to kill herself, I also feel that had she not been sexually assaulted then she would likely still be alive.

“Creatures”

And it’s because of the fact that is far from an isolated incident that with effort could become less prevalent that I focus on Krystal’s rape when memorializing her art and life following her death. I’m writing this not just to exposit, but as a base for action.

Those of you that read this that her prints of her work, I’d ask that you send me  high-rendition scans of them. Presuming I get permission from her parents, I’d like to curate a collection of her work and sell the prints in a hardbound book with the profits going to RAINN. And you know, if you can, donate a little something to themanyways. I know this won’t stop such horrors as what she experienced from happening again, but hopefully it can help to initiate some cultural change.

#Metoo

Self-Portrait 2011

 

Interview with Paul Kwiatkowski

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So after reading (and loving) Paul Kwiatowski’s book And Every Day Was Overcast and then confirming that one of the people that I thought I knew from the pictures in it was in fact who I thought it was, I decided to email Paul Kwiatkowski to request an interview. I wanted to talk to him about growing up in South Florida, his creative process as well as his early literary and musical influences. He agreed to speak with me and on July 23rd we spoke over the phone.

Ariel Sheen

So, have you had any contact with people whose pictures you took in the book and if so what have been some of their responses to it?

Paul Kwiatkowski

Yeah some of the people I’m still in contact with. Most of the people I’ve talked to have dug it. As for those that I haven’t spoken with, well, I hope they like the project and know where I was coming from with it.

Ariel Sheen

Keeping in mind that I love the lyrical nature of the book, I’m wondering what your decision making process was in deciding to forego a traditional narrative arc.

Paul Kwiatkowski

A narrative arc would be disingenuous to the material considering it’s the past and memory doesn’t work narratively that way. You can’t really remember it anything other than as bemusings and flavors. To create something that would make an arc would have been too clear.

Ariel Sheen

Do you find yourself more or less alienated living in New York than you were in South Florida?

Paul Kwiatkowski

OVERCAST_7I mean, I think a lot of the alienation that I wrote about had to do with just being a teenager. Plus Florida is kind of an isolated place to grow up. Not living in close proximity to people, I never felt like there was a community there. When I read your review of my book, like, I also remember wanting to go downtown, which was really just a movie theatre, and it being like a 40 minute ride just for that. As a teenage I hated that but I feel at this point in my life you can use that to your advantage creatively and just call it solitude.

Living in New York, well, I feel that your experience of the city largely depends on what you make of it. One thing I think is funny is that so many people come here with purpose and certain expectation of what will happen with it. Once that goes away, I think it becomes less exciting. Didn’t you use to live here? What did you think?

Ariel Sheen

Yeah, I did. My experience was largely the same. But I was in grad school so there was a large number of people to socialize with had the same purpose as me. The school encouraged meetings through a number of free food/drink events. But even then there was always this temporary element to any connection we had in the back of our minds. Or at least in the back of my mind. Something like we can be friendly now, but in a year or so we’ll be in totally different places of the country doing totally different things and so will lose track of each other. When I lived in Bushwick it wasn’t like that so much.

Paul Kwiatkowski

Oh nice, I like Bushwick. I saw Genesis P-Orridge play there last week.

Ariel Sheen

Awesome. I’m a little jealous. And a lot surprised! I don’t encounter a lot of people that know who that is. When I was about 16-17 I got really into industrial music. Through my investigations into the genre I came across him and a number of other… unusual musicians via V. Vale Re/Search Publications like Industrial Culture Handbook and his book on William Burroughs, Brion Gysin and Throbbing Gristle. I wasn’t always appreciative of the music, thought I did send Vale a demo I’d made, but I liked the innovative qualities of it. I mean a lot of it, like, sounds really weird.

Paul Kwiatkowski

Yeah I remember hearing them around the same time. Right about the same time I got into writing. I was mostly into Throbbing Gristle. I think it just really changed the way I go about making art. I think that’s what I got the most out of it. You know, Industrial or whatever electronic music name you want to call it just totally blew my imagination away. It definitely was inspiring and I definitely didn’t like every song to just get into the vibe of it. It was kind of a big influence. That stuff was just really. Man. Just finding out about it as a kid was inspiring. Maybe even more so than the products that the artists made. It definitely got me in tune with process and experimentation.

Ariel Sheen

So say 30-40 years from now, when there is no South Florida; How do you think you’ll respond to that?

Paul Kwiatkowski

d5551cf814407980-OVERCAST_0198It’ll be bitter sweet. There’s a lot of things that I love about Florida that I credit with my imagination. It seems inevitable though… Right? You should check out this book called Finding Florida. It’s just about this history of Florida and how it’s this state that’s never been able to be tamed. From the early Conquistadors that went there thinking they’d find gold. It goes from how thy not only didn’t finding gold but it was the only state that doesn’t have any rocks in the ground. Then tells about how later settlers tried to damn the waters but that storms kept flooding and destroying them. Then the elections and Bush. It’s this like, comprehensive history that this state has manipulated the people that have tried to harness it. Thus if Florida went up it’d just be fitting. It just has this entire history of kicking people back and that’d be just one more instance of it.

Ariel Sheen

I think you’re really on point about the land we call Florida not wanting the practices of white settlers. I’ve actually studied a lot Florida history and am also writing a book myself set there/here right now. Besides the North, prior to the Civil War, it was the Glades that had the largest population of runaway slaves. These were those that escaped and then acculturated themselves to the indigenous people in this land that at the time just could not be brought under the till.

Paul Kwiatkowski

Yeah, the Seminoles, right? The mix of races: free slaves and indigenous.

Ariel Sheen

Yeah, exactly! So from your 2011 Street Carnage interview I saw that you were reading a lot of literature that dealt with… unusual and extreme topics and themes. Because you and I are the same age I had this feeling that, well, in high school the setting of EDWO, at the time my group of friends was reading a lot of Poppy Z. Brite. She wrote Lost Souls and was wondering if you’d ever read it…

Paul Kwiatkowski

Haha. You know it’s funny I too was reading Poppy Z. Brite. I was a huge fan of Exquisite Corpse, which was one of my favorites.

Ariel Sheen

Yes! That book was so great!

Paul Kwiatkowski
You know it’s funny, I picked up the book again a year ago and it’s still really good. She’s kind of a kick as writer. So transgressive as well. It’s so impressive. Other than her, at the time I was also getting into Dennis Cooper and he definitely had a big influence on my approach to writing. Oh, and I started to discover Bret Easton Elis. There’s a book called Jesus Saves by Darcey Steinke.
It had a goth feel to it. I was just a voracious reader and was just really discovering literature at that time. I also remember reading In the Belly of the Beast and being really impressed by that. I worked at Borders so I had a lot of access to books. And a lot of the French Surrealists like Bataille and the Marquis se Sade. I’m glad I got that stuff out of my system as a teenager and not as an adult.

Ariel SheenPaul_Kwiatkowski_10

That’s so funny. I also worked at Borders, briefly, and when I was there Mike [the guy I know in one of the photos] was one of the floor managers.

Paul Kwiatkowski

That’s really wild.

Ariel Sheen

Going back to the Street Carnage interview, you’d mentioned then that you were working on a project from your trip to the Caribbean and Mexico, are you still working on that project? Or something else?

Paul Kwiatkowski

Haha! I don’t even remember what that project was, but at the moment I am working on a new book about Minnesota. Which is a large departure from those project. I’m working with a photographer who’s from Minnesota that’s now based in Medellin in Colombia. The book is about an airplane accident that claimed his cousin and photography’s relationship to technology. So it’s kind of like a mix between an Adam Curtis documentary with… I don’t even know what you’d say it’s mixed with…

Ariel Sheen

Cool. Interesting that you say that. I showed The Power of Nightmares in my Debate Classes to help students better contextualize the rhetoric their subjected to in the news.

Anyway, last question. So I bought the paperback edition of the And Everyday was Overcast for $30 and then learned that there’s an audio component that came for free with the $6 digital edition. Think you can send me that?

Paul Kwiatkowski

Oh, I can send it to you! I think it’s on my site. The soundtrack is part of the digital edition that I had done for my published that I did with Ryan DeShawn. It was actually heavily inspired by Genesis P-Orridge and Throbbing Gristle. I wanted to illustrate that Retard Radio storyline that runs through the book and, you know, in addition to going back to Florida and collecting pictures I’d go back and collect sounds. Something that always really stuck out in my memory of Florida was the sounds. It’s such an alive state. It’s constantly buzzing and grinding. It’s something that always fascinated me so I wanted to put something together as a companion piece to the book. But yeah, I’ll send you a zip file of it in a little bit.

Ariel Sheen

Cool, I’d like that.

Paul Kwiatkowski

No problem, I like that you’re interested in it. It was a cool experiment.

Ariel Sheen

Yeah. It sounds like it. And hearing you talk about it, it sounds like a friend of mine’s music production process that I just heard about on NPR that also left Florida for New York. Hopefully I can make it back there in two or three years.

Paul Kwiatkowski

Well it seems like you’re doing well over there, teaching and writing.

Ariel Sheen

That’s true, but that’s only after a long period of some personal hardships. No need to get into that, though. Thanks again for taking the time to speak with me.

Paul Kwiatkowski

My pleasure, it was good talking to you!

*

You can purchase And Every Day Was Overcast by clicking the title and learn more about Paul Kwiatkoski’s current projects by clicking here.

You can also read more interviews with the author that may or may not deal with topics of greater substance here.

Featureshoot Interview

Air Ship Daily

Street Carnage Interview

 

Art Basel, Miami Project and Aqua 2014


IMG_5532Three days after I’d received complimentary tickets to Art Basel, Aqua, Red Dot and Miami Project I drove down 95 and across the causeway to Miami Beach. Having gone three other times over the past several years I knew to get there early lest the traffic and parking be, respectively, slow and far away. Surely enough I was able to park across from the convention enter right before it filled up. I waited in line at the entrance and was one of the first to enter.

After two hours of looking at the works hung from the walls or placed on the floor I started to feel that the most interesting subjects was not the art but those gazing upon them. There was a short, stout Argentinian wearing a mix between a
pirate’s shirt and an artist’s smock whose lilting style of Spanish carried over into his English when speaking with his associate about the investment value of a particular artist. I saw Kristen Ritter, one of my favorite actresses of Don’t Trust the B—- in Apt 23 and Breaking Bad fame, walking along the aisles. There was a couple in their late forties dressed up in haute steam punk style and a wide variety of the Miami hipsters.

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What does it mean?

The primary reason I stopped paying attention to it, besides the feeling of overload of so much in such a small apace, was that a lot the art was exceptionally abstract and I didn’t relate to most of it there. Pieces of string going through a piece of glass, symbolizing I’m not sure what, stylized text repeated on large wooden boards, and colored circles against a stark white background just don’t get me excited. What I thought was the most interesting and exciting piece was an interactive art installation from a gallery in Brazil. Loud music came out from a room while a woman dressed up like the Chiquita Banana woman on LSD encouraged passers-by to come into the room filled with brightly colored pictures, masks, inflatable animals, bric-a-brac and toys. After her encouragement I stayed and played in there a while.

Requisite photo of a Shepard Fairey work.
Requisite photo of a Shepard Fairey work.

 

After almost four hours looking at art I was quite hungry. I left the exhibition, sold my tickets outside, ate a Cubano and some pastelitos before crossing the bridge back to Miami. Once at Red Dot, my affinity to the pieces of art there was raised dramatically. Here were the works made by artists that didn’t think that innovation was done by the rejection of forms and tropes followed for hundreds of years but through novel use of them. Gone were most of the abstract pieces and instead there was a number of highly imaginative works that didn’t require years of art-schooling in order to be able to understand it.

 

Some of the standout pieces, for me, were knitted pictures of Lindsay Lohan, a small IMG_5623rendition of a mosque made out of used bullet casings, a portrait of black girl in white face with the clothes typically found in portraits of royalty, Dave Eggers’ unusual illustrations and sayings, Niccolo Cosme’s Mater Dolorosa Conflictus and an enormously large and intricate tapestry depicting the Tower of Babel called Allegory of the Prisoner’s Dilemma made by Andy Diaz Hope and Laurel Roth. The vibe, too, was also better. The people walking around were less concerned with embodying highly idiosyncratic avatars full of esoteric knowledge on the relationship between artists and market values and were more interested in the work itself and having a good time.IMG_5596

After completing circulation of the exhibition hall, it was a short walk to Aqua. Aqua was, in a word, amazing. It was, however, also too good to be so big that it was thus big for it’s own good. While smaller than Art Basel’s space, because the art was so good that it made me stop more often that after almost four hours of walking around I didn’t even see everything there!

IMG_5619
Family Tree

Another piece that I found to be particularly interesting was the Family Tree installation by Charlotte Potter. The installation, represented by Heller Galleries, consisted of a number of cameos that were connected to one another in chains. Above the black and white images were water spigots with blood coming out of them. Immediately below that they were tied to others cameos to represent the marriages and births created from those relationships. Such a graphic representation of a family was not groundbreaking, but it is notable for it’s aesthetically pleasing play with the notion of bloodlines and the chains that connect families together.

IMG_5628Upon exiting Aqua I was again, surprisingly, searched. When asked why I discovered that someone had stolen Pablo Picasso’s Visage Aux Mains the night before and the security staff suspected that they had placed it somewhere in the facility and were going to take it out at a different time. I was rather shocked by this. I was more so upon reading, a few days later, the following commentary on the theft by Art Miami director Nick Korniloff to be interesting:

“We have issued a $5,000.00 reward for the return of the work with no questions asked— based on our own internal conclusion that whomever took the piece knows nothing about art and took it based on the fact that they thought it to be solid silver. […] It makes absolutely no sense that this work would be targeted by anyone with knowledge of art. We hope that the piece is returned to the owner to preserve the existence of the work for future generations.”

I find it interesting because not only is the reward for an object purportedly worth $85,000 so low but as this authoritative person in the art world states that that someone trying to obtain this Picasso is, essentially, a fool. Considering the feelings evoked by most of the work in the Art Basel exhibition hall, hearing this made me feel less of a philistine and less that I wasn’t the fool in the room that thought much of what was there was “great art” and “really valuable” outside of what gallery sales personally can convince someone to believe or pay.

All in all I had a great time. I’m very happy that art-world entrepreneurs have attached these other events onto the more recognized Art Basel, much in the same way Ultra has assisted the growth of Miami Music Week and Winter Music Conference. I look forward to going again next year!

Review of "And Every Day Was Overcast: An Illustrated Novel "

Uncanny is the first word that comes to mind after reading the self-described novel And Every Day Was Overcast: An Illustrated Novel by Paul Kwiatkowski. Reading perhaps isn’t an appropriate term given the abundant number of images in it. And calling it a novel is perhaps inappropriate too, as it’s length is more that of a novella or short story collection. Uncanny is spot on, however, as having grown up a few miles and three years behind Kwiatkowski many of the situations and people that he describes are those that I too experienced and met while growing up.

Upon viewing photos in the book I was immediately reminded of the cardboard box full of photos I have that were taken from cheap disposable cameras that my friends and I used to document our lives prior to the digital revolution. I was taken aback by them as his friends at the time look so similar to people I was friends with at the time. Furthermore, when I examine the photos of bedrooms I am taken aback as I see so many of the same band posters that used to adorn my own room. Marilyn Manson, Genitorturers, Jack Off Jill, Dead Kennedys, Rollins Band. While the latter two are nationally recognized acts the first three were – until Manson’s success – local acts with a strong local following by those growing up in South Florida at the time that did not identify with the pop, grunge and alt rock trends. Seeing this makes me wonder if Brian and I ever attended any of the same Marilyn Manson and the Spooky Kids concerts at the Button South or other shows.

Some details were different – the Miami exurbs have much more people than Jupiter – yet reading his book I learned that many of our experiences overlapped. We both lived on the underdeveloped edges of the urban core. South Florida’s organization around the automobile means that cultural paucity due to dispersion and segregation, the high rate of immigration into the state and within the state, the variety of social mores that could be confusing to navigate, especially when one is “coming of age” was the same there as it was further north.

These are just some of the factors leading many within the area to a general anomie that many within South Florida feel. It is a home in the sense that people live here, but their connection to it is almost inevitably very weak.

I recall at 16 the kids that would have their parents drive them 45 minutes to the nearest movie theatre to drop them off. I, who walked 45 minutes to get there but knew the area, would meet all of these kids that too felt so strange and out of place in what was presumably our “home town”. Strange, temporary friendships would form out of what could be called a strange desperation and we, like the people in Paul’s book, would try to score alcohol and go to secluded church or an underground parking lot that was partially flooded with water in once corner and the other with graffiti, broken beer bottles and junk food rappers and two mattresses that used to make me wonder how messed up someone had to be in order to sleep on it.

Back to the book – I decided to pick it up after coming across a wonderful review written by by Ira Glass. When I discovered that the author grew up relatively close to me and, after reading an except published online that made me feel that Paul Kwiatkowski was writing about something similar to what I am working on in Unraveling (a conclusion that upon reading it I’ve since revised) I decided to purchase it.

I checked Black Balloon Publishing’s and Paul Kwiatkowski’s website every few weeks to see when it would be available. When it was finally available for pre-sale, I ordered it immediately. When I first got in in the mail my excitement was short lived. After opening the package and flipping through the book I noticed that the book was primarily photographs. This disappointment, however, was short lived. It quickly transformed into disappointment that the book wasn’t longer as the writing was just so damn good. There is a visceral nature to the writing that brings a saccharine feel to the somewhat tragic accounts of teenage life in the morass that is South Florida. As a writer, reading this I found many instance where I found myself getting jealous. The turns of phrase and the descriptions are sticky and ought to be highly resonant with someone even if they didn’t grow up in the region. The photos, as I alluded to in the above, are not only compelling snapshots of what growing up in the alt-Miami scene in the 1990s was like but upon reading I found fits almost perfectly with the storytelling. Even if not directly related to the anecdotes or ex-post facto reflections they provide an accent that made me more drawn into the world that Paul formed via the book.

In my other reviews of books I find myself discussing plot points and character’s dilemmas and what not. While I could do that here as well I think I’m less interested in trying to categorize this as something within a school of literature or trying to unpack the themes than I am in just appreciating it as art. Though the thrust of the book is bored kids searching for fun in the places that adults don’t want them to look in and growing up via unexpected/undesired events isn’t particularly new, the format is. The interspersed pictures of notes, the short text-message length texts, the photos make it almost a collage/yearbook of times best not forgotten. Through prose that is intensely lyrical, the squalor, the perversity, and generally disassociating atmosphere for adolescents in South Florida is put on display. The frame, however, is not moralistic but, for the most part, descriptive. The abundance of aberration depicted takes on an almost irresistible quality.

As lately I’ve been surveying a number of books that could be described as “poetics of childhood trauma” – a strange turn of phrase as what childhood is not traumatic in some way – I found this a worthy addition to that cannon as well as a number of others (i.e. photojournalism, memoir, etc.). Thankfully here the troubling forays that can lead to some sort of immutable truth, depending on whether or not they repress or incorporate it into their consciousness, end for the most part ambiguously but in a manner that is also aesthetically satisfying. In this way, and because I so appreciate the photos and writing, I find this quasi-bildungsroman to be highly compelling literature and hope this is not the last I’ll read or see of Paul Kwiatkowski’s work.

I highly recommend those reading this to pick up his book and check out his other projects Eat-Pray-Drug and SummerChills as well.

La Maleta Mexicana

Since moving to Barcelona several events of regional import have occurred. A ban on bullfighting in Catalonia, viewed as a cruel and solely Castillian pastime, has been put into effect. The Popular Party, which began from the ashes of Franquismo and still contains elements of it, has ejected the PSOE from national power. Wide scale revelations of Catholic social agencies falsely pronouncing newborn children dead to their mothers so that their children could be given to deserving Francoists has happened. Additionally, the Civil War pictures of Robert Capa, Chim (David Seymour) and Gerda Taro have returned to Spain. While this last event is of the least world-historical significance, there is good cause to recognize the pictures themselves for their artistic value but to see in it also a return of something precious once lost to Spain’s cultural history. If it weren’t for the fact that the photos reproducible, the return of the photos to Catalonia for the first time would be similar to the return of the Elgin marbles to Greece.

The Civil War is a taboo topic in Spanish society. According to one of my Spanish instructors, the extent of its teaching in schools is that “it happened” and the only to the extent that Franco took power. The sundry reasons for the war, the scope of the tragedy during the war and that afterwards political purges against those sympathetic to the Second Republic killed tens of thousands more are disavowed. Yet what cannot be silenced is the profound influence that such occurrences had on the current makeup of Spanish society. When all that is spoken of is that a political liberalization followed Franco’s death it ignores the fact that many of the potential political activists, intellectuals and other people that could have been significant in institutional statecraft or non-governmental structures were exterminated.

Yet despite the potentially painful and conflict inducing nature of this exhibit, this hasn’t stopped many people from visiting the museum and coming to see them. I have no figures to say just how many people have gone, but I can relate that it wasn’t until the second time that I went to the museum that I was able to see the pictures as the first time the exhibition was filled to capacity and had a long line of people going outside of the MNAC.

The exhibition was organized from the start of the Civil War. The narrative thrust of the pictures, from the speeches of agitators and crowd shots of peasants and factory workers, the first preparations of defense from an assault by those that had once been their neighbors, the ruins following aerial raids, and ground combat was gave an idea of what was going on, however with the above historical understanding there is many things implicitly missing. Unseen are the roving squads of Nationalists going through conquered cities at night in search of those that had been enemies or sympathizers by day. Visible are the poor conditions that the Republican Army and International brigades fought under and their stoic faces when preparing for an air raid by Nazi planes. At the end of the exhibition we learn through that the photographers felt they must flee to Paris and then the United States in order to survive the continued victories of fascism.

The exhibit is designed to show a dialogue between these pictures that were known of and printed in international magazines documenting the war along with the 4,500 other negatives that hadn’t been published. It exudes a certain sadness to it in that not only is the effect of though we see widely publicized pictured hinting at what a new conflict would look like amidst the advanced industrial powers of Europe, people were still unwilling to mobilize in order to prevent it’s occurrence. Along with the pictures themselves were two videos, one of which was an American newsreel, with subtitles in Spanish and the other a film reel shot by Capa, as well as original magazines from the period which used the pictures of the three authors. One of these magazines includes an article by Winston Churchill, which tellingly states that unless the United States is willing to openly declare that it won’t allow any one power to control the European continent that there will be war. Such articles are an interesting accent to the exhibition as they openly hint at the historical context outside the immediate pictures. It displays not only the “special relationship” between Britain and the United States, but the idealistic isolationism of the latter and the devastating effects of it’s unwillingness to replicate the balance of power diplomatic policy used by Britain for hundreds of years.

In this regards, despite the fact that very little attention is given to the details of the Spanish Civil War, Henry Kissinger’s writing about this in Diplomacy is highly insightful in pointing out the context wherein virtually every Western power saw a Fascist Spain as less of a danger to their interests than they did a marginally Leftist Spain presumably tied to the Soviet Union. That such a position was radically misinformed, as the Spanish Republicans and Libertarian Communists were not puppets tied to Stalin and certain sections of the myriad groups supporting the left only later came under Soviet influence after the total isolation by the world community left it little choice, only became clear in hindsight for those involved.

While all of this is only visible through a dialectical reading of the pictures, the pictures themselves are significant not only in their documentary nature but in their composition as well. The photos of Branguli, which I wrote about earlier, are another set of images quite literally helps provide a fuller picture to the economic and political developments occurring in Barcelona at this time.

If you cannot get the chance to see them in person – I would highly recommend buying the book showing all of these once thought to be lost pictures.

I’ve not gone into too much detail on the history of the photographers as there is an excellent documentary on Capa and La Maleta Mexicana that once released is eminently worth viewing.

Branguli at C.C.C.B

I had never heard of the name Josep Branguli before moving to Barcelona and going to his exhibit at C.C.C.B. This is understandable for as a documentary photographer capturing the urban metamorphosis and social transformations at the beginning of the 20th century he is a single person amongst many. His pictures of small factories employing a handful of people, and the large ones replacing them are done as artfully as the pictures of workers in social setting. Yet these are not unique. What distinguishes Branguli from others is his collection of Spanish Civil War photography.

Branguli was born in 1879 and worked as a photographer in Barcelona from 1909 until his death in 1945. Unlike Capa, Chim and Taro, the photographers most associated with documenting the conflict, Branguli did not have to flee before Franquist troops. This meant that he was not moving around from front to front and was able to document most of the important events of Barcelona. As a well-known resident documenting the conflict but not a member of any of the groups later banned by Franco, Branguli was able to remain in Barcelona and take photos after the Second Republic finally collapsed. In these years Branguli focus shifted from the social and material changes imposed by capitalist logic to the topography of a repressive police state.

One of the events that Branguli captured on cellulose included images from the Tragic Week of 1909. It was during this week that Republicans, Socialists and Anarchists fought against clergy and the army following unrest against pay, working conditions and anti-militarism. It was during this period that many overstated stories that had the intention of delegitimizing the secular parties purportedly initiating the fighting were circulated in the press. One of the news stories circulated to discredit the Republic was that their anarchist allies were digging up the corpses of nuns and priests throughout the region and dancing with them. Branguli’s picture shows that bodies were indeed de-interred, yet subsequent historiography show how this only happened in a few places and was not at all a systematic desecration as was spoken of in Catholic.

This particular picture is interesting not just as it gave validity to the King and Catholic Church’s claims of moral authority but in a way also undermines it. The influence of the Catholic Church in Spain was and still is profound. The peasants at that time, if literate at all, were so only in the teaching of the Bible and the catechism unless they’d been able to be educated in one of Fransisco Ferrer’s handful of modern schools. One of the Catholic articles of faith at the time was that those that who had lived a holy life would decay slower, as evident by the use of holy relics, and thus the picture of the body presents a paradox. To the viewer, the holy body is indeed removed from it’s grave and the body is also not as holy as claimed by the authorities on holiness. What is indeed presented is the same sort of problem as the stinking body of Zosima, something that I doubt would have been lost by Branguli.

Buenaventura Durruti's Funeral Procession

Another important event that Branguli was able to visually preserve for posterity was the funeral procession of Buenavetta Durruti, an Italian anarchist activist and writer inspired like many others to leave their homelands and come to Spain in order to assist the Second Republic from a fascist military coup. He was, however, shot and killed after only a week in Spain. Despite his marginal role in the war, the numbers of people clearly show that he was someone that gave voice to many of those fighting for their lives.

Also captured by Branguli was the arrival of Heinrich Himmler in October in 1940. His presence is not only evidence of the collusion between Fascist Spain and Nazi Germany, but hints at the deeper collaboration between these two nations. This shouldn’t be too surprising considering that Spain did in 1492 part of what Germany was then attempting to accomplish. Thus, with the lessons of the Peninsular War surely at the back of their minds, the Gestapo and Spanish secret police sought to root out the Catalan nationalists and other classes that might rupture their organicist ideals.

While Branguli’s work was published in several Spanish revistas I’ve yet to find evidence that he was published outside of it. After the war in Spain, it was a taboo issue inside the country and the rest of the world now shifted their attention to the conflict building up into a fever pitch around Germany. Thus that he is still somewhat of a hometown secret becomes more understandable, though perhaps with a little bit of luck some sixty plus years after his death he’ll be getting the recognition that he deserves.